Simchat Torah in Riverdale

I spent Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah this year (together with the Shabbat that immediately followed) at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). I had looked forward to the visit, but mostly for extraneous reasons. My son and daughter-in-law, after spending the first years of their marriage in Baltimore, are now living in Riverdale, where my son has begun his studies for semicha (ordination) at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the yeshiva founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who is also the founder and long-time spiritual leader of HIR. Riverdale is a lot closer to Queens than is Baltimore, and I was eager to take advantage of that increased proximity to spend more time with my son and daughter-in-law  — not to mention my two-year old grandson.

That aspect of the yom tov was wonderful, of course — how could it be bad? But my visit also gave me the opportunity to experience HIR, a rather unique shul, and to observe its well-known senior rabbi (Rav Avi, as he’s called locally) in his natural habitat, as it were. As it turned out, I had (accidentally) chosen a historic occasion for my visit – but more about that later.

I had met Rav Avi years ago, when he was mesader kedushin (officiating rabbi) at a wedding I attended. The bride’s mother had been seriously disabled for many years and by the time of the wedding was wheelchair bound. I had been impressed at the lengths to which Rav Avi went to include her in all aspects of the wedding celebration. A couple of years later, in my only previous visit to HIR (the Bayit, as Rav Avi calls it), I had attended the brit milah of that same couple’s first born. Once again I was impressed at the extent to which Rav Avi went out of his way to help the same disabled woman, the baby’s maternal grandmother, feel part of the celebration. He brought her up to the bimah where the brit took place and made a point of addressing her when he spoke, expressing the hope that he would celebrate other semachot with her.

I was impressed on both occasions by Rav Avi’s display of chesed. Before those occasions, I had known who he was, of course; he had been a well-known public figure for many years, an activist leader in support of Soviet Jewry, Israel and other Jewish causes. I had heard him speak at rallies, had read op-eds that he had written and had followed his activities through news reports, but that wedding and the subsequent brit milah were my first opportunities to see him in person. His appearance and manner were very different than I had expected. He seemed more like a gentle counselor than a militant activist.

After watching him at those two celebrations, I realized that those who knew only his activist side – the Avi Weiss of the headlines and op-eds — were missing an extremely important dimension of his character. He was an activist, to be sure, but his was the activism of compassion, not the activism of anger. I also realized what some of his would-be imitators have never managed to figure out – that he could do what he did outside his shul because he first took care of business on the inside.

Given this background, I was not surprised to see that, on Simchat Torah night at HIR, Rav Avi went out of his way to include in the celebratory dancing that accompanies the hakafot those whose physical limitations make it difficult for them to participate. I must admit, however, that I was somewhat taken aback when I realized that I was one of the objects of his inclusiveness. He had come up to me in shul that morning, seeing an unfamiliar face, and I had proudly introduced myself as the father of a new YCT student. Shortly after the hakafot began that night, he came over to me and began dancing in a way in which even I, walker and all, could participate.

As my children can attest, I am not a person who finds it easy to ask for help, even when I need it. Though my Parkinson’s has advanced to the point that I use a walker to avoid falling, I have trouble accepting that I can’t easily participate in activities such as Simchat Torah dancing, in which until the last few years I always took an active part. Yet in Rav Avi’s actions to facilitate my participation — and the participation of others with similar limitations — in the celebration of Torah, there was no condescension, only a sincere desire to include each person as much as possible. He enabled me to participate in the celebration of Simchat Torah (which had once been my favorite holiday) to a greater extent than I have in recent years.

I believe that my daughter, who accompanied me to Riverdale for Yom Tov, felt similarly, but for a different reason. In recent years, she also has generally felt her participation in the celebration of Simchat Torah limited – not (God forbid) by any physical disability but by her gender. The shuls that she has attended on Simchat Torah in recent years don’t object to dancing in the women’s section, but neither do they do anything to encourage it. I have always found it puzzling that while at a typical Orthodox wedding the women’s dancing is often livelier than the men’s, on Simchat Torah those same women mostly stand on the sidelines and watch. The unintentional message seems to be that it’s fine for women to celebrate a family simcha, but for them to celebrate Torah is somehow inappropriate. This mindset, needless to say, is not found at HIR, and my daughter too found this year’s Simchat Torah celebration refreshingly lively.

Rav Avi’s spirit infuses the Bayit, which is why his announcement on the morning of Shemini Atzeret, though long anticipated by the locals, seemed so momentous. Speaking that morning after the conclusion of the service, he announced that, come July 1, 2015, he would “step back” from his position as HIR’s senior rabbi. He wasn’t retiring, he said clearly, and his decision was not related to his health. He will continue to teach at the Bayit as a rabbi-in-residence and to mentor students at YCT. But he also wants the opportunity to spend more time with his children and grandchildren, some of whom live in Israel.

Clearly, Rav Avi has given a great deal of thought to transition arrangements for the institutions he has built. His announcement on Shemini Atzeret, included an enthusiastic endorsement of his expected successor at HIR, Rabbi Steven Exler (Rav Steven in HIR parlance), a YCT alumnus who has been his associate for the last several years. He had already turned the leadership of YCT over to Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who became YCT’s President a year ago. For the time being, it appears, he will retain a more hands-on relationship to Yeshivat Maharat, the women’s yeshiva he founded, which is dedicated (according to its website) to offering “an exceptional education in Jewish law and pastoral counseling,” thus “providing a credentialed pathway for women to serve as spiritual and halakhic guides.” Yeshivat Maharat has, of course, been the most controversial of the institutions Rav Avi has founded as well as the newest, so it is understandable that he may feel the need to maintain a greater personal involvement for a bit longer.

Rav Avi’s careful attention to leadership transition is refreshing. All too often, accomplished leaders with unique gifts give little or no thought to transition arrangements, leaving the durability of the institutions they have founded and nurtured to chance. Rav Avi, obviously, does not want to be among them.

When he spoke on Shabbat Bereisheet, which this year fell on the day after Simchat Torah, I saw another facet of Rav Avi’s uniqueness. His subject was the opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which was being performed at the Met two days later, and which, according to many who have read the libretto, glorified the terrorist murderers of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish man in a wheelchair who was a passenger on the ill-fated Achille Lauro back in 1985. He explained how the wheelchair in which Klinghoffer had been pushed overboard had become a symbol of the struggle against terrorism. He urged attendance at a protest rally being held that Monday.

But something else about the protests was disturbing Rav Avi as he spoke. At an earlier protest someone had spoken in a manner suggesting an encouragement of violence, and some of the news media had erroneously attributed those words to Rav Avi. The misattribution upset him because violent protest goes against everything he stands for. He had gone through the tape to find the offending words and to demonstrate that the voice that uttered them was not his.

While Rav Avi will, God willing, continue to be an active participant in the institutions he founded for many years to come, each step in the transition process cannot help but raise anew in the minds of his admirers and detractors alike the question of continuity.  Will the Bayit, under Rav Steven’s leadership, continue uninterrupted in the path along which he has guided it?  Will YCT, with Rabbi Lopatin as its President and Rabbi Dov Linzer as its Rosh Yeshiva, continue to produce rabbis who are willing and able to have an impact not only on the Orthodox community but on the wider Jewish world as well?

Since my son is a student at YCT, I obviously have a vested interest in the school’s continued success.  At the same time, I cannot help but be aware that not everyone in the Orthodox world wishes it well. Some of Rav Avi’s detractors are no doubt hoping that YCT’s success thus far is a product of Rav Avi’s unique talents and will not outlive his active leadership.  I need not speculate about the existence of this mindset because some of those detractors have not been shy about articulating that hope.

One example of such a mindset appears as an opinion piece from the October 22, 2014 issue of the Chareidi newspaper Yated Neeman.  The piece was written by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, that newspaper’s  publisher,  and entitled “Rabbi Avi Weiss to Step Down.” It begins by reporting the announcement speech I heard on Shemini Atzeret morning and even includes uncontroversial quotes from it.  But by the seventh paragraph, Rabbi Lipschutz  has had enough of journalistic courtesy and is ready to go on the attack. He complains that “the agenda [Rav Avi] has set in motion continues to wreak havoc. His graduates occupy pulpits in congregations and schools across the country, propagating his innovations under the cloak of Orthodoxy”.

Rabbi Lipschutz then criticizes mainstream Orthodox organizations, including the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU), for being in his view insufficiently zealous in criticizing Rav Avi –who remains an RCA member – and failing to effectively read him out of contemporary Orthodoxy.  He launches into an account of the history of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements, about which he appears to know very little, and draws parallels to YCT, about which he seems to know not much more.

Rabbi Lipschutz eventually reaches what I suspect is his real concern:  “There is no reason that students of [YCT] should be allowed to label themselves as Orthodox and compete against frum candidates for open pulpits in synagogues across the country.”  Fortunately for YCT, it never seems to occur to him that the best way to interfere with the excellent placement record of YCT graduates would be for the other yeshivot to produce equally strong candidates, particularly for positions that require interaction with those outside the Orthodox community.  From his perspective, apparently, YCT’s worst sin is being successful.

Although Rabbi Lipschutz acknowledges in the opening paragraph of his piece that Rav Avi “had previously given up the presidency of Chovevei Torah,” he makes no further reference to that rather significant fact, nor does he mention YCT’s current President, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, by name.  That omission, I suspect, is no accident.  Because of his long history of activism, Avi Weiss is an easy target for those who want to paint him – and any institution he has led — as dangerously radical.  It’s not a fair characterization, but it has a surface plausibility for those who’ve never met him.  It would be a lot harder to tar Rabbi Lopatin with that brush, so Rabbi Lipschutz doesn’t try.

Reflecting on his first year as President of YCT , Rabbi Lopatin has written a thoughtful essay  whose title says a great deal not only about its contents but about its author as well: “ Can We Build Bridges Both to the Left and to the Right—Simultaneously?”  The essay was published in the journal Conversations, which is edited by Rabbi Marc Angel, the rabbi emeritus of Shearith Israel and a former RCA president.

In the essay, Rabbi Lopatin recounts that, as part of the celebration of his installation as YCT’s president, he invited the heads of other major rabbinical schools, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, to participate in a roundtable discussion on the future of rabbinic education.  The result was what anyone familiar with  American Jewry would have expected: the non-Orthodox school heads accepted while the Orthodox ones did not.  Moreover, “much of the Hareidi organized world attacked the bridge-building on the left as a sign that Chovevei Torah was not sufficiently Orthodox.” He characterized this attitude as “anachronistic”, noting that the non-Orthodox movements have frequently served as “gateways for thousands of Jews to find more commitment to Torah and mitzvoth.”

Rav Avi has done a remarkable job in building institutions that reflect an approach to Judaism very different from that reflected in the pages of Yated Neeman.  By his careful handling of the transition of the professional leadership of these institutions, he is increasing the likelihood that they will continue to thrive even when he is no longer able to guide them.  There is every reason for confidence that he has left YCT and the Bayit in good hands.

Simchat Torah marks both the end and the beginning of our annual Torah reading cycle, and its celebration would be incomplete without both aspects.  Leadership transitions too mark both an end and a beginning and they too would not be complete without both.  By happenstance, I had the privilege of observing the celebration of both Simchat Torah and the beginning of a leadership transition in a truly unique shul, the Bayit that Rav Avi built.  May the Bayit, YCT and the rest of the institutions that Avi Weiss has built or will build continue to go from strength to strength, and may he  have many more years  of good health in which to teach, to mentor, and to enjoy time with his children and grandchildren.




About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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